The Loquacious Atheist: He Is Speaking Pure Gibberish

When I heard that Daniel Dennett’s new book on consciousness was released, I didn’t care. He has a tendency to argue in this format:

  1. Here’s an idea it isn’t worth explaining from the past.
  2. Here’s my alternative that uses sciency words.
  3. It cannot be explained by current science, but with enough scientific advances, it obviously will be explained.
  4. Logic, etc.

I’m hardly exaggerating. It’s like Sam Harris, but less endearing because it isn’t podcast format and he doesn’t look like Zoolander. I stopped reading Dennett’s books when I recognized that pattern.

David Bentley Hart refers to mistakes like this as the pleonastic fallacy, explaining qualitative distinctions in terms of quantitative increments toward some grander whole. He’s especially fond of the accusation in The Experience of God. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett basically argues that a bunch of physics explanations are true, biology is probably just as accurate, therefore there is no need for a first cause since more explanations will be found. In other words, being itself can be explained by things that already apparently possess being. Theodore Beale made this awesome meme about his style:

[ATHEIST+LOGIC.jpg]

Having mentioned Hart, the silver lining of new Dennett books being released is that Hart lumbers forth from whatever tome laden cavern he inhabits in order to put pen to paper for a brief, scornful essay before returning to his arcane pursuits. Apparently, Dennett does not disappoint and continues his pattern of argument. And Hart, not to be outdone, makes fun of him for it:

Dennett, however, writes as if language were simply the cumulative product of countless physical ingredients. It begins, he suggests, in mere phonology. The repeated sound of a given word somehow embeds itself in the brain and creates an “anchor” that functions as a “collection point” for syntactic and semantic meanings to “develop around the sound.” But what could this mean? Are semiotic functions something like iron filings and phonemes something like magnets? What is the physical basis for these marvelous congelations in the brain? The only possible organizing principle for such meanings would be that very innate grammar that Dennett denies exists — and this would seem to require distinctly mental concepts. Not that Dennett appears to think the difference between phonemes and concepts an especially significant one. He does not hesitate, for instance, to describe the “synanthropic” aptitudes that certain organisms (such as bedbugs and mice) acquire in adapting themselves to human beings as “semantic information” that can be “mindlessly gleaned” from the “cycle of generations.”

But there is no such thing as mindless semantics. True, it is imaginable that the accidental development of arbitrary pre-linguistic associations between, say, certain behaviors and certain aspects of a physical environment might be preserved by natural selection, and become beneficial adaptations. But all semantic information consists in the interpretation of signs, and of conventions of meaning in which signs and references are formally separable from one another, and semiotic relations are susceptible of combination with other contexts of meaning. Signs are intentional realities, dependent upon concepts, all the way down. And between mere accidental associations and intentional signs there is a discontinuity that no gradualist — no pleonastic — narrative can span.

Similarly, when Dennett claims that words are “memes” that reproduce like a “virus,” he is speaking pure gibberish. Words reproduce, within minds and between persons, by being intentionally adopted and employed.

And so it goes. 

Abba Joseph, Beetle Kings, and Jesus

This little piece from the desert Fathers helpfully illustrates Matthew 5:14-16:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?” “What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus, in the passage mentioned, challenges his disciples to be the light of the world. Abba Joseph above tells Abba Lot, “If you will [desire to be a light], you can become all flame.”

But to will the destruction of our most cherished unnatural impulses can be hard.

I want comfort. I want my way. I want my space to myself, my time to myself, my feelings to myself, my whatever.

But Jesus is already the light of the world. So, why not become all flame? Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou asks that question in his song, “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate.

Remembering: Part 2

Previously, I mentioned the bizarre timing. 

Two years ago, around the end of October, I ran into a friend at the bookstore. He was bandaged and seemed rather disheveled. He was wearing a hospital bracelet. A few days or weeks later (I can’t remember), his wife called to let me know that he had disappeared. I figured that he was as good as dead. And so for the past two years, I listen to some of the music he wrote in November and I think briefly about our friendship, what I learned, what I could do better in current friendships, and pray for his family, etc. 

Now, his disappearance could have meant anything. He possessed a powerful intellect. His desk in his home was always riddled with strange old electronic devices he would repair: oscilloscopes, out of production media players, decaying monosynths, disassembled miscellany, and disorganized sundries, etc. But he also had great facility with learning languages, very difficult mathematics, music history/theory, and a vast knowledge of philosophy, theology, the occult, and Jungian psychology. He knew chemistry and sometimes did impressive tricks. And he had a knack for surviving in the wild. His never-ending curiosity was unnerving. But certain desires that drive people can becoming so consuming that they destroy rather than enliven, his was for knowledge. As he would say, unchecked desire could dissolve rather than coagulate.

He always reminded me of Andy Kaufman. He loved the eccentric and would happily take a joke too far just because he enjoyed it. In high school, the song “The Great Beyond” would remind me of him as much as of Kaufman. Part of why I became friends with him guy was our similar sense of the absurd. We were in a band called ECP, the Exploding Chaos Parade. With the exception for four or five people whose opinion he really valued, he was immune to group norms. That immunity to the opinions of others is very freeing.

While I was writing the other post, I had this sudden hopeful thought: what if he came back…what a train wreck that would be, but he’d be alive, be there for his kids (in some capacity) and probably have some wild stories. My natural pessimism reminded me that this isn’t a movie. Anyway, his wife called me a week later, to the day, to tell me his remains had been found.

But what was weird about it all was the day I ran into him, prior to his disappearance, we talked about Carl Jung’s book Synchronicity and potential overlap with Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance. Synchronicity is Jung’s term for coincidences which are not causally related, yet are meaningfully connected. That’s what made the timing of the phone call, the text, and the delayed moment of remembrance of my other friend all so bizarre.

Here’s an example of his music: 

 

Here is an absurdist collage he made for reasons he didn’t even know:

I don’t mean to romanticize my friend. He was a broken man. Everybody is haunted by demons, may God give us the strength to face them. 

Eric Johnson’s Proposal for Christian Reading

 

Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal[1]

Below is a summary of Johnson’s rules for Christian reading. It’s a useful part of his book. Because these are my own words, anything poorly stated is my own fault, not Johnson’s.

  1. The goal of Christian reading, even leisure reading, is conformity to Christ. Therefore what and how we read matter.
  2. The Holy Spirit is the Christian reading light. This metaphor indicates that while reading, the Christian is cooperating with the Holy Spirit in coming to have self-knowledge, knowledge about what is being read, knowledge about the author, knowledge about the world, and knowledge about God.
  3. New Christians should ask wise guides for help in reading, both what to read, and how to understand it.
  4. There is a natural hierarchy in the texts we read:
    1. The canon of Scripture.
    2. Classic texts of the Christian traditions.
    3. Other quality texts (I would add, classical texts of one’s national, ethnic, or intellectual tradition).
    4. Inferior texts that aren’t worth reading.
    5. Bad texts which draw the readers from what is true, good, or beautiful.
    6. Banned texts, some texts are simply justifiably censured and censored.
  5. Non-Canonical texts need to be read with trust and suspicion.
  6. Reading non-Christian texts wisely increases wisdom and is therefore worthwhile.

References

[1] Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (InterVarsity Press, 2007), 222-226.

Vice Promotes Vices?

I don’t make it a habit of reading Vice magazine. But I clicked a link today that referenced a recently released study I had read a few months ago. The author let it be known that her whole point was to try to demonize male self-improvement by associating all masculinity with the dreaded Trumppernaut. But she also made several basic errors, like implicitly supporting socialism, failing to observe that the results aren’t indicative of individual character but policy preferences, or that other things like education among net-contributors also predicts aversion to wealth redistribution. Anyway, when my eyes flitted away from the cacophony of disconnected claims clustered around interview quotes, I saw several Vice headlines: 

Gym Bros More Likely to be Right-Wing Assholes, Science Confirms

Why Smart People Are Lazier than Their Dumb Friends

Only Stupid People Have Lots of Friends

It’s doubtful that with titles like these, the articles in question are not similarly riddled with basic errors. But what’s more interesting is that every other article is about how some apparently innate trait like IQ or gender makes you better than people who work hard, go to the gym, use their time effectively, and so-on. It’s like the whole point of the website is to confirm people in their worst traits and to inculcate in them a fixed mindset. Sad.

 

Goals, Systems, or Virtues?

Scott Adams is of the opinion that goals are for losers and systems are for winners. The reasoning is that goals make it psychologically easy to stop doing everything it took to achieve them once you achieve them (this problem is the main point of the book The Slight Edge). But not only so, goals make it harder to do the needful thing, because every day you haven’t achieved your goal, wake up defeated. So he recommends systems, daily/weekly, monthly tasks that move you in a positive direction regardless of the final outcome. 

This seems right. But, sometimes goals are very important. You might really want to buy a home, dunk a basketball, or make straight A’s. Or you might need to lose weight or get out of debt. So making a goal and achieving it might be very valuable. There are two options. One, change what you desire. Or two, create systems that will take you in the direction of your goal, but only dwell on the systems, not on the end goal (some research literature says that visualizing goal oriented tasks is more valuable than visualizing goal achievement). If you take option 2, I think there is a valuable middle step that gives you option 1 as well. 

I think that between goals and systems is the sort of person you wish to become. In other words, between winning races and training routines is “the sort of person who is good at making training routines and running faster than I used to run.” William Irvine, in A guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, explains the concept of internalizing goals. The Stoics tried to make their sense of peace and joy depend not on outcomes or even task completion, but rather the virtue acquired. And so it’s not just that you implement a system to win races or even that you win them. It’s that you overcome yourself by attaining the virtue of self-mastery with respect to running. So the pattern is something like this:

  1. Determine what you want to do.
  2. Ask yourself if you want to become the sort of person who can do that thing. In other words, is it valuable to be that sort of person even if I do not attain the goal.
  3. Then design a system to make it happen.

Any thoughts?

The American Creed

While I am a Christian and therefore find allegiance to the kingdom of God, the person of Christ, my family, and personal virtue to trump loyalty to a nation or a state, I still really love being American. I went through a brief phase where my interest in Anabaptist theology and concerns for the dangers of statist loyalty and patriotic idolatry caused me to through out any concept of national identity with its abuses. That’s what Seneca and many of the early church fathers did with anger, it’s dangerous, so root it all out. But I do love America. I am, as David Bentley Hart says of himself, something of an american chauvinist. And so this closing salvo from Paul Johnson’s book, A History of the American People was touching to me, if not naive in some respects (I typed it because I wanted the passage to stick in my mind, any errors below are my own). It’s worth reading without my rambling reflections beneath it: 

“…[T]he story of America is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence. America today, with its 260 million people, its splendid cities, its vast wealth, and its unrivaled power, is a human achievement without parallel. That achievement-the transformation of a mostly uninhabited wilderness into the supreme national artifact of history-did not come about without heroic sacrifice and great sufferings stoically endured, many costly failures, huge disappointments, defeats, and tragedies. There have indeed been many set-backs in 400 years of American history. As we have seen, many unresolved problems, some of daunting size, remain. But the Americans are, above all, a problem-solving people. They do not believe that anything in this world is beyond human capacity to soar to and dominate. The will not give up. Full of essential goodwill to each other and to all, confident in their inherent decency, and their democratic skills, they will attack again and again the ills in their society, until they are overcome or at least substantially redressed.  So the ship of state sails on, and mankind still continues to watch its progress, with wonder and amazement and sometimes apprehension, as it moves into the unknown waters of the 21st century and the third millennium. The great American republican experiment is still the cynosure of the world’s eyes. It is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward into its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity. (History of the American People 976)

Johnson’s remarkable paean to the American people only indirectly references the government. Instead it is largely about the cultural virtues that typify Americans, broadly. Some of his language is nearly numinous in nature, but it need not be taken that way. In a civic sense, America is exceptional. The question is whether his optimism will be proven well-founded or flimsy.

I think it is stupid for us, as a nation, to look to our past and reject it. To do so is to be lost. But many do just that, and like the baptists who reject church tradition they lose their way in the waves of the culture.

An interesting question to ask for Christians who read passages like the one above is this: are there cultural tools for Christian spiritual formation? Just as each culture has unique combinations of vices, so might each have unique combinations of virtues? For instance, certain cultural emphases might coinhere with the gospel in such a way as to help it be understood even more. My suspicion is that American culture focused a great deal on industriousness and problem solving. This can be seen in technological advancements and in the fact that a form of stoic pragmatist individualism seems to have been our chief philosophical contribution (Emerson and James). And so is there a version of the American creed that is naturallennobling for American Christians without appealing to baser forms of ‘my country is never wrong’ patriotism? I think so. The idea that Christians tend to believe in ‘America: Right or Wrong’ is silly on its face as many Americans fear that abortion is bringing America under God’s wrath precisely because America is wrong to allow it. 

The Pincer Attack

One of the mostly commonly utilized conceptual weapons in the rhetorical attack on being a normal person is ‘sexual fluidity.’

In a nutshell: “Sexual fluidity is one or more changes in sexuality or sexual identity (sometimes known as sexual orientation identity).”  It’s a favorite concept among third wave feminists, especially those who argue against hetero-normativity (which is another way of saying, ‘reproductively viable intercourse’). It is especially important to these theorizers because sexual fluidity is allegedly very common among women and therefore central to female experience. I suspect it’s actually common due to the difficulty some feminist theorists have finding partners of the opposite sex. 

Anyway, recent findings contradict this notion. One finding inverts a major feminist theory, the other is more sobering.

In the first instance, it turns out that sexual fluidity, if it exists at all, may have evolved due to polygynous household arrangements. The idea is that sexually fluid women were less likely to be competitive if they found one another sexually attractive: 

“…women may have been evolutionarily designed to be sexually fluid in order to allow them to have sex with their cowives in polygynous marriage and thus reduce conflict and tension inherent in such marriage.”

And so women with such propensities supposedly remained in polygynous households longer (see Genesis 16:6), they had more children, and their children survived. Incidentally, unrestrained sexual behavior favors a small number of men in the modern world. So, on college campuses, a much smaller percentage of male students is sexually active with multiple partners from a significantly larger pool of female students who are active with multiple partners. And while this isn’t a polygnous marriage, it would be analogous to the circumstances under which alleged sexual fluidity evolved (multiple female cooperating for the opportunity to have children with resource/charisma rich males). In other words, sexual fluidity is just a way for the patriarchy to have multiple women and for women to have more children. It’s not actually a radical idea against the sexual order. 

In the second place, it appears to be much more rare than previously believed. “The present paper reviews longitudinal studies on sexual attraction which indicate that the great majority of women do not have a fluid sexuality, but have instead stable attractions over time.”

Haha, #science. And etc. 

Remembering: Part 1

Every year, around the anniversary of his death, I sit and think about a friend. I’ve done this for several July’s in a row. This year I did not. My daughter had been born and I was utterly distracted from my normal habits. 

In high school he was an atheist. We often argued about God’s existence (despite being in debate class I found political debates boring). In college, he had a break from reality connected to several bad habits he’d developed in high school.

Before he graduated, classmates gave him a dose of real-talk about the probable results of his excessive drinking. He had been one of the brightest guys I’d ever met, and I tried to surround myself only with people I thought were very bright, he rose to the top. He excelled, especially, at music theory and debate. He was two years older than me. At this point we were not friends.

Anyway, out of the blue, he contacted me when I was in college. He claimed to have become a Christian as a result of his apparent breakdown. He wrote a bunch of music. He even offered to help my brother’s band produce an album, presumably as a kindness to me. His conversion experience seemed sincere, though some of our mutual friends told me that they weren’t sure he wasn’t pulling an elaborate prank.

We spent the weekend with my roommates and I. We attended some concerts, debated Scripture, and talked about stupid high school antics. From this point on, he would regularly call me. He eventually asked me to baptize him, so I did. This took place over about 2 years, with the baptism somewhere in the middle. I slept so little from 2003-2010 that anything within that time frame seems almost simultaneous. 

From 2008-2010, we stayed in touch, grabbed food a few times when he was in town. Sometimes, I ignored his phone calls. It was never personal and he knew he usually contacted me in what could only be described as hypermanic states.

In 2010, he died. Causes were never made public. I have my suspicions, but they don’t matter. Since then, I go to his MySpace music page and listen to the good songs once a year. I used to go to the funeral home webpage to reread his obituary, but two or three years ago, it went down. Eventually, the MySpace page will be gone. I checked it last week and none of his old songs would play. That’s a shame because my brother and I both lost his album. 

I don’t like being sad. I don’t reminisce to make myself sad. I accept the ancient belief that it’s important to remember the dead so that they remain active in history. I don’t mean animism, but that specifically remembering people brings their words and actions into history anew. That feels especially true to me if they never had children. There are men and women whose deaths go unremembered every day. Christ remembers them. But, it just seems intuitively right to try to hold those who were close to you in your heart if you can. And it’s not that I don’t believe in heaven or the resurrection from the dead. I do. I just believe that history matters and people are supposed to remain in it longer than 28 years or so.

I similarly call to memory two other friends. One died when I was in high school. My last words to him were when I was tutoring him in geometry and he was refusing to grasp the concept (we played soccer together so the harshness is playful): Don’t be such a f*cking idiot. Remembering him reminds me to be circumspect with my words. Going to a funeral for a Christian brother and soccer teammate while remembering that as your last conversation is sobering. 

The other isn’t known to have died, but he has disappeared. 

Now, I wrote this short reflection for personal reasons. I never meant to post it. But the months-off timing of my recollections was bizarre this year.

 

 

National Men’s Day: A Stream of Consciousness about Masculinity

To be a man is first to be human:

  1. To be a man is to seek virtue.
  2. To seek virtue, a man must seek adventure. Courage requires risk.
  3. To be a man is to build.
  4. To build is to restore the past or to create the future. 
  5. To be a man is to destroy and incorporate that which opposes building. The fur of the predator becomes the pelt of the hunter. The cave of monsters becomes a home. The fire becomes a tool.
  6. To build is to reason. To be a man is, therefore to seek truth.  

To be a man is inherently sexual:

  1. To be a man is to love women.
  2. To be a man is to find a woman.
  3. To be a man is to be desirable to women.
  4. To be a man is to be desirable, in particular, to the woman. 
  5. To be a man is to not be a woman.
  6. To be a man is to be strong, durable, and steady.
  7. To be a man is to fight. Man builds and destroys, woman builds and sustains.
  8. To be a man is to need the company of men apart from women.

To be a man is tribal:

  1. If a man needs the company of other men, then their families become a tribe.
  2. To have a tribe is to have honor.
  3. To have honor is to know shame. Men shame other men when their behavior is unbecoming of their status, family, the group norms, or the truth. 
  4. To have a tribe is to be wary of danger.
  5. To be a man, then, is to preserve the old ways. For just as to be human is to build the future, to be a man is to ensure that the progress of the past is not lost.